Getting Ready

An important issue has yet to take center stage in the debate simmering over the impact that credentialing will have on the relevancy of a college degree. There is a difference between completing certification that leads a student/employee to present credentials and verification that credentials actually demonstrate proficiency. What happens if our commitment to increasing access effectively leads to a “dumbing down” of learned outcomes? In the end, who’s in charge?

For students preparing to learn, the question is especially relevant. While online learning, MOCC’s and other strategies improve efficiency, convenience, and access and are price sensitive, there will be wide variations in quality, acceptance and value. These technology-based changes are welcome from a public policy perspective because they directly address access and work force preparation. We should embrace their potential, understand that there will be early mistakes, and recognize that the pace of the evolution that higher education is undergoing has quickened.

Early traffic cops like the American Council on Education are wrestling with the oversight question. It will be interesting to see how policy plays out with regional accrediting groups. The danger is, of course, that efforts to impose order on expanding chaos will ultimately create new bureaucracies and ugly turf battles. Lost in much of this debate may be critical principles of shared governance in higher education.

In the end, America’s collegiate faculty must step up to the plate. In a system of shared governance, the faculty manages and credentials academic outcomes. Their task is to organize, teach and certify learning through the granting of the degree. This basic fact goes to the very heart of what our faculty contributes to American society. Should faculty give up this responsibility, it will undercut their role in governance and hasten the transition from colleague mentors to employees at will.

At the Edvance Foundation, we are sponsoring a program called the Nexpectation Network. The Network builds upon a multiyear pilot project at Bucknell University and significant planning support from major national foundations and corporations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, among others. It proposes to take two-year graduates who are identified early and receive informed, ongoing and sustainable one-on-one mentoring.  These transfers are also embraced by a safety net of committed four-year mentors, and assessed throughout the experience, including as alumni, to help them achieve a four-year degree.  The results are striking, demonstrating that these students graduate at rates equal to or better than those traditional students in the comparable four-year graduating pool.

As we developed the business, marketing and communications plans, the Foundation’s directors have come to recognize the significant opportunity that exists by merging talents and expertise from the ed tech community with more traditional kinds of higher education.

What we found is that higher education can learn a great deal from our ed tech colleagues. Specifically, we can develop a technology platform that provides the backbone to communicate and provide admissions strategies geared towards social media where students live.  We can also create technology-based readiness strategies, and competency based training to prepare two-year graduates for four-year learning environments. As we worked through these components over the past nine months, what stood out clearly is that faculty must play a role beyond mentorship to craft a climate for student success.

When I applied to a private high school in the late 1960s, I took a test that determined not only whether I would be admitted to the school but also established my level of readiness. The outcome was clear, clean and simple, broadly communicated and widely accepted. The promise of technology to increase workforce preparation and produce an educated citizenry must merge the capacity and innovation of the ed tech community with the role that faculty plays governing higher education learning experiences. In the emerging battles between degree granting and credentialing, it’s not a question of either/or but why not both?

As part of the planning process, we conducted a listening tour in nearly 20 states and a national webinar series. We were struck by the similarities in what we heard from 800 higher education officials, nearly 400 of them college and university presidents. Among their comments, what resonated most loudly was a kind of red flag noting differences in the types of education offered that precluded a seamless transition to a four-year setting. Four-year leadership emphasized repeatedly that two-year graduates should be better prepared for a four-year experience.

These comments were not critical of two-year learning environments; indeed, four-year leadership often admired the work that had been done but saw the experience as different from what transfer students would find at their institutions. These leaders argued that what was needed were “ready” students on four-year terms who could get through their programs.

Somewhere in this debate is an easy compromise. Within American higher education, the different types of and approaches to education that exist must have “readiness” components that bridge learning styles, expectations and outcomes to create a seamless experience for the student no matter what route they take in their educational experience. Faculty must step forward – and soon – to claim their role at the table. It’s a different and nuanced role but done well the outcome will be the same. The failure to do so will create a vacuum.  What emerges from this period of chaotic opportunity will shape our understanding of how faculty contributes to American society.

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